Summary: The young knight of Ivanhoe, disinherited by his father, must prove his worth in order to win the hand of the lovely Saxon princess Rowena. Their lives intersect with a wide cast of characters, including some villainous Normans, a Jew and his beautiful daughter Rebecca, a passionate Knight Templar, King Richard, and the outlaw Locksley.
Review: Even for fans of historical fiction and particularly the Middle Ages, the pacing of Ivanhoe can be a little rough. Scott delights in building atmosphere and showing off his history trivia, so although the book opens with the promise of a tournament, things do not really get exciting until nearly 150 pages in. The pacing continues at this odd pace throughout the novel, though to a smaller degree, as Scott spends more chapters building up to a climatic event than at the event itself.
There are wonderfully exciting scenes in the novel, which is to be expected from a book which has been variously adapted into children’s versions, comic books, and movies. Yet, arguably, excitement is not Scott’s primary concern. Indeed, there is not too much about the plot that is very surprising (beyond an absolutely insane scene near the end, which is hilarious, if not good writing—a note in the Signet edition says to blame the publisher for this).
The focus then, must be on the myriad themes of the novel, including an intense interest in national identity, nation building, cultural identity, the place of the Jew and “others” in English society, chivalry, and women. All these themes are treated seriously and complexly and will provide a lot of material for a thoughtful reader to ponder. Scott seems ahead of his time in promoting ideas of tolerance and modernity, and using a medieval setting to do so!
Ivanhoe will be a slow read for those reading it for fun instead of class, but it should ultimately be a worthwhile one, being both entertaining and profound.